From its humble beginnings thousands of years ago to becoming a ubiquitous symbol of style and self-expression, the tattoo has been fully integrated into our global cultural fibre. Why is it, then, that body art and fashion don’t seem to share a more symbiotic past?
The tattoo is no modern invention. In fact, its genesis can be traced all the way back to roughly 5000 BC, when the Japanese embellished clay figurines with tattoo-like markings. Ever since, tattoos have been uncovered in all corners of the world, from elaborately adorned mummies in ancient Egypt to European sailors collecting tattoos as mementos along their punishing journeys across the South Pacific.
Historically, the way in which inked bodies have been perceived has been pliable and dynamic, with geography, socioeconomic standing, and our ever-changing values dictating whether tattoos are seen as symbols of individuality, marks of rank, emblems of shame or badges of distinction worn with pride. While tattoos, in one iteration or another, have been omnipresent throughout history, they have only recently been incorporated within mainstream fashion.
From counter to culture: Issey Miyake’s Tattoo collection
For many decades, the supermodels walking the world’s most sought-after runways in London, Paris, New York, and Milan were nothing if not blank slates, immaculate and unmarked. Tattoos had no place in the world of fashion — that is until Issey Miyake presented his formative autumn/winter Tattoo collection in New York in 1971.
An unabashed celebration of youth culture, rock’n’roll and contemporary artistry, Tattoo, which debuted the now-iconic hand-painted dress and men’s bodysuit using traditional Japanese tattoo techniques, was widely recognised as a loving homage to traditional Japanese irezumi (tattoo) culture, as well as the musical idols of the young generation — particularly Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
Miyake, who witnessed the 1968 anti-authoritarian student protests, was known to have little interest in pandering to the upper echelons of society. Instead, his vision was one of inclusion, using subversive imagery to make high fashion accessible to everyone, not just a lucky few. Tattoos, which were only legalised in 1948 in Japan, are still negatively associated with the Yakuza (members of Japanese crime syndicates) in many parts of the country to this day. By making the subversive practice the beating heart of his collection, Miyake desanitised the runway, paving the way for a meaningful discourse on the intersection between politics and fashion.
From the fringes into the mainstream
Following in Miyake’s footsteps, by the late ’70s, other revered designers began incorporating tattoo-like markings into their collections. From Martin Margiela’s semi-sheer tattoo-inspired top (1989) to Jean Paul Gaultier’s Les Tatouages collection (1994) and Maison Margiela’s Sailor Jerry-inspired SS14 couture collection, tattoos were no longer hidden undergarments; they now proudly embellished them.
Similarly, much more widely accessible high-street labels across the globe began building their meticulously crafted ‘rebellious’ brand DNAs on the back of fashion’s new-found love for subversion. Most prominently, American brand Von Dutch’s homage to mechanic and artist Kenny Howard’s nickname (‘Dutch’), which rose to fame in the early noughties after French stylist Christian Audigier was brought on to lift the label from oblivion. Audigier retained Howard’s signature style, steeped in biker culture, with the characteristic trucker hats and washed-out tees flaunting the brand’s conspicuous logo and the now infamous ‘flying eye’ tattoo. From Britney Spears to Gwen Stefani and Fred Durst, Von Dutch had, ironically, become a sign of bon goût at the start of the new millennium.
In 2004, Audigier left Von Dutch to join what would eventually become a global, multimillion-dollar sartorial juggernaut: prolific American tattoo artist Ed Hardy’s eponymous — and in the early 2000s, omnipresent — fashion line, boasting ostentatious designs, all pierced hearts, blazing flames and scrawled script snaking through matching rhinestone applications.
While both brands, undeniably zeitgeisty products of their times, eventually fell out of fashion, they did mark a clear trend: body art had suddenly become synonymous with high-street accessibility and off-the-rack individuality. No longer a mark of outlaw culture, the tattoo had instead become an accepted means of defiant self-expression.
Covered up: tattoos on magazine covers
Although fashion had turned the tattoo into a covetable sartorial trope and the high street had made it a universally available commodity, at least as far as garments were concerned, surprisingly few inked bodies had graced the world’s fashion magazine covers.
Today, virtually nobody raises an eyebrow at barely-there body art appearing on a cover: a sliver of Lady Gaga’s back tattoo (American Vogue, October 2018), Katy Perry’s wispy Sanskrit script (Vogue Japan, September 2015), the tiny heart adorning Ariana Grande’s ring finger (British Vogue, July 2018). But until recently, larger, dominating displays were still typically relegated to the tucked-away pages of high-fashion glossies or magazines considered ‘edgy’ or ‘niche’.
Enter the notorious American Vogue March 2019 cover featuring Justin and Hailey Bieber, which may have single-handedly been responsible for making prominent, large-scale tattoos cover-congruous once and for all. Similarly, British Vogue’s May 2020 Rihanna cover made history by setting two new records in one fell swoop: not only was it the first Vogue cover placing a large face tattoo front and centre (courtesy of British make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench), and it also marked the first time a woman was shown wearing a durag on the cover of British Vogue.
A case for temporary permanence
While tattoos have been weaved into the fabric of acceptable social practices in large parts of the world, with the aspirational fashion magazine cover symbolising the final frontier, it’s important to highlight the vast cultural differences that exist to this day. It appears deeper — and perhaps unsavoury — connotations still linger in some of the less tattoo-friendly countries, such as Japan, Iran, the UAE, and North Korea. However, by and large, the tattoo seems to have finally shed its subversive reputation by becoming a statement of beauty and individualism.
Recent statistics show that, interestingly, it isn’t the younger generation boasting the largest number of tattoos; instead, one study shows that those with an itch for ink fall into the 30 to 49 bracket. However, spend five minutes scrolling through your Instagram feed and it quickly becomes apparent that tattoos are as ubiquitous as ever. How does this all add up? One theory is that body art isn’t going anywhere — instead, it’s just taking on a new, more temporary form.
Beauty heavy hitters such as Fenty and NYX seem to think so, too. Offering broad collections of strongly pigmented ‘body paint’ in a wide range of shades and colours, these palettes have inspired droves of social media personalities to experiment with temporary body art, sharing their meticulously designed faux tattoos with their sizeable fan bases. UK-based streamer and make-up artist Sophia White (also known as Djarii) has amassed a huge following on Twitch and Instagram by sharing her passion for temporary body art. She describes her fanbase as a diverse mix of genders and identities who view body modification as a unique means of self-expression. “The younger generations especially are more accepting and inclined to shut down stereotypes that were previously associated with body art,” she tells Vogue over email.
Djarii knows that her followers, a generation growing up in the golden age of social media, feel the pressure when it comes to conveying a perfect appearance. The chameleonic nature of the Insta-aesthetic might help explain the move towards less permanent forms of body modifications, allowing individuals to dip in and out of fleeting trends. “Creative body art has been steadily rising within the make-up industry, and I think a lot of that success has to do with creative expression. Makeup has long provided the power to transform and express ourselves,” Djarii explains. “Temporary body art allows me to push my creative boundaries and to safely explore my own personal image. Today, more and more people are looking to express themselves in this way.”